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1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker

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A Critic at Large January 15, 2018 Issue

Improving Ourselves to Death
The Efficiency Trap

What the self-help gurus and their critics reveal about our times.

Better, Faster,
StrongerBy Alexandra Schwartz

appy New Year, you! Now that the champagne has gone at and the Christmas
H tree is off to be mulched, it’s time to turn your thoughts to the months ahead.
2017 was a pustule of a year, politically and personally; the general anxiety around the
degradation of American democracy made it hard to get much done. That’s O.K.,
though, because you’ve made new resolutions for 2018, and the rst one is not to make
resolutions. Instead, you’re going to “set goals,” in the terminology of the productivity
guru Tim Ferriss—preferably ones that are measurable and have timelines, so you can
keep track of your success. Apps like Lifetick or Joe’s Goals will help by keeping you
organized and allowing you to share your progress on social media; a little gloating does
wonders for self-motivation (unless, of course, one of your goals is to spend less time on
social media). Once your goals are in place, it might be smart to design a methodology
that will encourage you to accomplish them. Charles Duhigg, the author of “ The Power
of Habit,” recommends a three-step self-conditioning process. You want to get to the
gym more? Pick a cue (sneakers by the door); choose a reward that will motivate you to
act on it (a piece of chocolate); execute. Bravo! You are now Pavlov and his dog.… 1/13

that most hallowed of modern traits. recalibrate. Jane McGonigal’s “SuperBetter SuperBetter” tells you how to gamify your way back from the edge with the help of video-game-inspired techniques like nding “allies” and collecting motivational “power-ups”. she told her readers. the reigning champion of the genre was “The The Secret Secret. more effective in the pursuit of happiness and. and repeat. Self-help gurus need not be charlatans peddling snake oil. or tech entrepreneurs with enviable records of success in life and business. log our sleep rhythms. and. If you sent a wish out into the universe with enough faith. in a day of easy money. count our steps.newyorker. https://www. “Smarter Better “Smarter Better Faster. Want to get rid of your glasses? Picture yourself acing your next vision exam and kiss those progressive lenses goodbye. Rhonda Byrne. and Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” reminds you that persistence makes all the difference when the going gets rough. found that their dreams could come true. record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker But soon enough February will come. “Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer. Duckworth doesn’t think you need talent in order to become.” published in 2006 by The Secret an Australian. According to their systems. Then the global economy crashed. seems a testament to the predatory optimism that characterized the years leading up to the nancial crisis. It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. more focussed. Want to nd a husband? Clean out a closet for the man of your dreams and imagine him hanging up his ties. In our current era of non-stop technological innovation. We must now chart our progress. Not to worry. Like Norman Vincent Peale before her. fuzzy wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization. anyone can learn to be more efficient. ye shall receive”—with the acquisitive gospel of positive thinking. Byrne combined a literal interpretation of select verses from the Christian Bible—notably Matthew 21:22. People dreamed big.” and neither do any of these Better Faster. And if you can’t. and we were shaken violently awake—at least for a… 2/13 . mid-winter doldrums will set in. it could come to pass. Many are psychologists with impressive academic pedigrees and a commitment to scienti c methodologies. well. In retrospect. and you’ll start to slide.” which sold more than twenty million copies worldwide. “The Secret. other experts. A decade ago. productivity. that’s on you. What they’re selling is metrics. Self-help advice tends to re ect the beliefs and priorities of the era that spawns it. tweak our diets. as “Smarter another of Duhigg’s books puts it. Faster.

including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading. Goop. sample prostate vibrators. wealth. creativity.” Many of the tasks that Cederström and Spicer assign themselves have a double-dare quality whose cost-bene t value seems questionable. and Spicer. is true of self- improvement.” Cederström and Spicer write. in the spirit of George Plimpton’s brand of participatory journalism. and pleasure. embarking on a yearlong program in which they target a new area of the self to improve each month. go on the Master Cleanse liquid diet. We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves. (This may explain Yoni eggs. and World-Class Performers. and Habits of Billionaires. try mindfulness and yoga. Icons. they’ve become their own test cases. and the same. an enthusiastic Swede. Cederström. we are not meant to buy one pair of jeans and then be satis ed. consult therapists and career coaches. Even their book’s format—entries of the diary that each keeps to record and re ect on his endeavors—is relevant to their… 3/13 . offers them in both https://www. all at once. This time. want to understand the lengths to which people will go to transform themselves into superior beings.” the authors followed health nuts who were determined to meditate and exercise their way to enlightenment. attempt standup comedy. business-school professors in a eld called Desperately “organization studies.” Gwyneth Paltrow’s Web site. stone vaginal inserts that purport to strengthen women’s pelvic.oor muscles and take away “negative energy.newyorker. and to examine the methods that they use. But others inspire the same niggling whisper of self-doubt as Instagram posts of green juice: Should I be doing that. like memorizing the rst thousand digits of pi during Brain Month in order to improve mental acuity. they think. “Desperately Desperately Seeking Seeking Self-Improvement: Self-Improvement: A A Year Year Inside Inside the the Optimization Optimization Movement Movement” (OR Books). and attend a masculinity-boosting workshop that involves screaming and weeping naked in the woods. “The The Wellness The Wellness Wellness Syndrome Syndrome. They bulk up at Cross Fit. In their previous book. a comically committed exploration of current life-hacking wisdom in areas ranging from athletic and intellectual prowess to spirituality. considering that daily journaling is recommended in Tim Ferriss’s “Tools of Titans: The Tactics. a melancholy New Zealander. Routines.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker Carl Cederström and André Spicer. too? I confess to feeling a pang of jealousy when Cederström produces a complete book manuscript in a euphoric amphetamine rush induced by study drugs during Productivity Month—and a surge of Schadenfreude when it’s rejected by his baffled publisher.” set out to do all that and more in their recent book. “In a consumerist society.

(They report that they each spent more than ten thousand dollars. else in his life. “We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life.” Cederström and Spicer write. can failure. And yet. with the end of their project approaching. Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy. On the other side of self-improvement. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days. and everyone. on their own quests. In December. Cederström and Spicer have discovered. is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. He doesn’t even feel like himself. Spicer re ects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything. but it is no longer enough. he writes. who was it then?” VIDEO FROM THE N YORKER The Immigrants Deported to Death and Violence… 4/13 . “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all. Cederström and Spicer estimate that the self- improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year. too. so.) There is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker jade and rose quartz.newyorker. their relationship is not at its best.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself.) The good life may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle. not to mention thousands of hours.

requires that https://www. too. and thus worthy of comfort and satisfaction. and blames the horror and shame of failing to meet the sky-high expectations we set for ourselves. He cites surveys that show that adolescent girls are increasingly unhappy with their bodies. there’s the economy. according to the British journalist Will Storr. where workers have fewer protections and are more disposable than ever. Storr has harsh words for positive psychology. Storr confesses that he. studies show that we are hardwired to see life as a story in which we star. evolved during our hunter-gatherer years to value coöperation and. Finally. it’s a nice change from Christian guilt. especially on social media. and perfection is the idea that kills. with its doctrine of a sinful self that requires salvation. nally. who’s “just a self-hating. our sense of ‘me’ naturally runs in narrative mode. sex-afeared. it has “infected” the rest of the world with aspirational narcissism. First.” he writes. On the one hand. “Sel Sel e: e: How How WeWe Became Became SoSo Self-Obsessed Self-Obsessed andand What What It’s It’s Doing Doing to to Us Us” (Overlook). he says. globalized economy. opens. it can T also be fatal. He reserves special scorn for the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. to the perilous American pursuit of happiness.” he writes. at the same time. and. is dogged by self-loathing and suicidal thoughts. Survival in the hypercompetitive. On the other. to make life look like a string of enviable triumphs. to respect hierarchy and covet status—“to get along and get ahead. we are tribal creatures. which pioneered the Human Potential Movement back in the nineteen-sixties and has recently gained popularity with the Silicon Valley… 5/13 .” Next comes culture—a trajectory that wends its way from the ancient Greeks. to Christianity. secular reinvention” of the same. to Freud. “Because of the way our brains function. there is nature.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker he desire to achieve and to demonstrate perfection is not simply stressful.newyorker. His forthcoming book. alarmingly. “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become. Storr has con icted feelings about the American view that the self is fundamentally good. with their idea that humans are rational creatures who must strive in order to ful ll their highest potential. At the same time. Storr is disturbed by the prevalence of suicide in the United States and Britain.” Storr’s explanation for how we got into this predicament has three strands. with a chapter on suicide. “We’re living in an age of perfectionism. and for the self-esteem movement. he interviews psychologists and professors who describe an epidemic of crippling anxiety among university students yoked to the phenomenon of “perfectionist presentation”—the tendency. and that a growing number of men are suffering from muscle dysmorphia.

more radical suggestion to make. with his greed-is-good hucksterism and his obsessive talk of “winners” and “losers. rather than signs of some shameful psychological impurity. how can any of us choose to live otherwise? Storr insists that there is a way. “This isn’t a message of hopelessness. “Since I learned that low agreeableness and high neuroticism are relatively stable facets of my personality. Since it is our environment that is causing us to feel inferior. If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad. in fact. what it actually leads us towards is a better way of nding happiness. Donald Trump. that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be. and more creative.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker we try to become faster. Storr acknowledges.) Anything less than our best won’t cut it. well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be… 6/13 . He is quick to say that he isn’t encouraging anything quite as clichéd as self-acceptance. the people we’re sharing it with.) Meanwhile. common sense. parents continue to feed their children the loving.” is in the White House. https://www. At the same time. this rational response to economic pressures became instinctive habit: “Neoliberalism beams at us from many corners of our culture and we absorb it back into ourselves like radiation. This seems like good. when they inevitably come up short. this is a bleak picture. (To this list of marketable qualities I’d add one with a softer edge: niceness. rather than the market’s brutality. which the gig economy and its ve-star rating system have made indispensable to everyone from cabdrivers to plumbers. After a while.” This sounds suspiciously like self-help-speak. he now apologizes to those whom his disagreeableness and his neuroticism have offended. come to accept himself. but changing every aspect of the world we inhabit is a daunting prospect.” Storr means to be helpful.” he writes. he reports that he has. I’ve stopped berating myself so frequently. “On the contrary. social media frames human relationships as a constant competition for popularity and approval. Storr says. but Storr has another. We should nd projects to pursue which are not only meaningful to us. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion. Storr is adding a chapter about the President for the American edition. (“Sel e” was published in England last year.” Like reality television before it. or even a preference. No wonder people try to change themselves instead.newyorker. but over which we have efficacy.” which leaves the kids blaming themselves. the goals we have. All told. smarter.” he writes. Instead. it is our environment that we must change: “The things we’re doing with our lives. you can begin to free yourself from your demands. but an economic necessity.

and it’s easy to see why her approach appeals.” she tells us. and “breaking free from the Cult of Nice. Knight’s point is to encourage her readers to embrace themselves as they are.” Sanity seems not to be an entirely random or stupid social obligation. he doesn’t have to hire me. after “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do” and “Get Your Sh*t Together: How to Stop Worrying About What You Should Do So You Can Finish What You Need to Do and Start Doing What You Want to Do. being real. Brown). she suffered from eating disorders.” by Mark Manson. embracing pessimism (to be pragmatic and set realistic expectations). and to help them do so she proposes strategies like “mental redecorating” (recasting one’s weaknesses as strengths).” She is particularly proud of the best-selling part. dwelling on the thought of death (to maximize happiness while alive). but never mind. because. warts and all. the “random. the idea is to be more assertive. deal with it” school of self-help guides. she can re me. Knight. “You have to stop giving a fuck about what other people think.” Knight’s books belong to what Storr sniffily calls the “this is me. Bennett. being sel sh (advocating for one’s needs). She gives her readers permission not to care too much about always doing their best on the job. Knight is preoccupied with the tedium endured by the office-bound class: pointless morning meetings. “If a boss doesn’t like the way I operate. which tend to share a skepticism toward the usual self-improvement bromides and a taste for cheerful profanity. or. calls herself a “bestselling anti-guru. rather. Where Storr is concerned with the precarity of modern-day work. and Sarah Bennett. Generally. as she reveals. Her latest… 7/13 . a practicing psychiatrist. and “F*ck Feelings. She agrees with Storr that what is wrong is society.” Knight writes. Much of the advice in “You Do You” is geared toward helping readers confront the workplace dissatisfactions of the daily grind.” by Michael I. “If a client thinks my unconventional ways aren’t for him.newyorker. his daughter. irritating group projects. is the third she has published in two years. stupid obligations set forth by society—whether to be nice or thin or to act submissive or sane.” Knight is happy to demonstrate the latter. she knows what it is to be a perfectionist. The phrase takes up two full pages of her rst chapter. Other recent titles include “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. As an adolescent. After https://www.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker arah Knight has advice of a more speci c kind to offer. who favors the shouty. “You You Do S You: You: How You: How to How to Be to Be Who Be Who You Who You Are You Are and Are and Use and Use What Use What You’ve What You’ve Got You’ve Got to Got to Get to Get What Get What You Do You What You Do Want Want” You Want (Little. super-caffeinated tone of a spin-class instructor.” This is curiously cavalier.

“The difference between me and a lot of condescending bozos out there is that I don’t give a Fig Newton whether anyone chooses to do it the same. “do it better and do it for longer. In 2016.” The big question that Brinkmann addresses in “Stand Firm” is speed. and now Improvement Craze available in an English translation by Tam McTurk. Many readers will undoubtedly nd this inspiring. as much as they may want to? While they are stuck in their cubicles. The pace of life is accelerating. fashion. Brinkmann lived “the relatively sedate life of a professor of psychology at Aalborg University. His rhetoric is that of a prophet counselling against false idols. she left her job and her home in Brooklyn and moved with her husband to the Dominican Republic. we are expected to be constantly on call. with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we are doing. and health. but stressed.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker graduating from Harvard. she made a career as a book editor at a big publishing house. Brinkmann condemns self-improvement as both a symptom and a tool of a relentless economy. Others may feel betrayed. Before “Stand Firm” came out. She was successful. it comes as something of a shock to realize that the person who has been advising us to push against the lean-in mores of contemporary office culture leaned so far out that she escaped altogether.” Then the book became a best-selling sensation. differently.newyorker. we no longer see eternal paradise as https://www. Brinkmann now lives the life of a successful European public intellectual. Knight describes experiencing panic attacks that required medical attention.” Knight writes. appearing on TV and radio and travelling the world to lecture “on the big questions of modern life.” Like Storr. We succumb to eeting trends in food. the author’s note tells us. Still. to stay calm at work. Knight is sipping piña coladas and writing her next best- selling “No F*cks Given” guide.” as she did. when she was thirty-six. But where Storr sees a health crisis. in 2014. she kept a kitty-litter box full of sand under her desk so that she could plunge her toes into a simulated beach. Technology has eroded the boundary between work and private life. rst published in his native Denmark. hose for whom the imperative to “do you” feels like an unaffordable luxury may T take some solace from Svend Brinkmann’s book “Stand Improvement Craze Stand Firm: Stand Firm: Resisting Firm: Resisting the Resisting the Self- the Self- Self- Improvement Craze” (Polity). Brinkmann sees a spiritual one. she is not advocating that all of us quit our day jobs and “step off the motherfucking ledge. to do more. In other… 8/13 . What about those who can’t afford to take the risk of stepping away from their lives. mentally redecorating and meditating on death. he says. “In our secular world. or wearing a gold lamé unitard.

) And he nds wisdom in other. in any case. is Tim Ferriss. Enough of our mania to be the best and the most. more surprising sources. character. for that matter.” “Put on your No hat.” (“I thought it was a realistic goal worth pursuing for a small university. you fall behind. too—in fact. this is like having a glass of ice water poured over your head.” The goal is to accept. Brinkmann advises limiting it to once a year. His colleagues did not agree. in a section in praise of “kvetching. maybe Mother Teresa did not.” he writes.newyorker.” he explains. he tells us that. With pride. His book is concerned with morality. he says. dignity. he suggested “that we should strive to become a mediocre institute. standing still is precisely what he proposes that we do.” Brinkmann tells us. He is big on the Stoics. Chapter titles include “Focus on the negative in your life. It’s time to content ourselves with being average.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker a carrot at the end of the stick of life. In cheeky deference to the self-help genre. but if kvetching works for him he is welcome to it. but try to cram as much as possible into our relatively short time on the planet instead. self-control. The important thing.” Yet. as Brinkmann’s title makes clear. “I might not be an expert in Jewish culture (my main source of knowledge is Woody Allen’s lms). Maybe the Norwegian nationalist Anders Breivik felt that he was being “true to himself ” when he went on his murderous rampage. What difference does it make? If you must engage in soul-searching or self-analysis. Brinkmann has structured “Stand Firm” as a seven-step guide of the type that he… 9/13 .” “but I get the impression that a general acceptance of griping about things both big and small is actually a cultural conduit that fosters collective happiness and satisfaction. and irreparably awed.” and “Suppress your feelings. enough of the self ! “Being yourself has no intrinsic value whatsoever. with calm resolve. the fact that we are mortal. After Knight’s can-do cheerleading. https://www. He cares how we act toward others.” he writes.) And enough of self-acceptance. It’s harsh. “If you stand still while everyone else is moving forwards. but bracing. which tends to get short shrift in the self-improvement literature. when he and his colleagues at Aalborg University were asked to propose institutional development goals. is the word “collective. He likes old-fashioned concepts: integrity. with their focus on the transience of worldly things. (So.” Brinkmann doesn’t care so much how we feel about ourselves. Doing so these days is tantamount to going backwards. preferably during summer vacation.” I can assure Brinkmann that the concepts of collective happiness and satisfaction are all but alien to the Jewish people.

is that it calls for T an individual solution to a collective problem. We may be blundering forward. Don’t mind if I do. you come away with the comforting sense that there are other people out there struggling with the same pressures and frustrations. Mainly. 2018. some form of conservatism may actually be the truly progressive approach.” as Brinkmann is well aware. and read a novel instead. especially a… 10/13 .” Brinkmann writes. He acknowledges that this is paradoxical. and sometimes. he says. in a culture where everything else is accelerating. Much of his advice is contradictory. lead to the kind of maudlin nostalgia for the good old days that got us Brexit and Trump? “I would contend that. keep up. tradition.” the corrective that Brinkmann advises. Still. issue. That feeling —solidarity—is another Brinkmann value. like ours. you don’t need to agree with everything he says to recognize that there is value in reading his book. Things don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value. is imperfect. and think about the vastness of the cosmos. that is not kind to those who don’t. who experience similar dissatisfactions and worry about their own inadequacies. and limited. He. That’s part of his charm. with the headline “Resolutions. Go for a walk in the woods. rootedness. too. His advice. he exhorts us to do our duty. secure in the knowledge that it will not improve you in any measurable way. By this.newyorker. you want to talk back.” https://www. Brinkmann can come off like a parent telling his tetchy teen- ager to tough it out. How are we supposed to both suppress our feelings and emphasize the negative? And doesn’t “dwelling on the past. I think he means that we are supposed to carry on with life’s unpleasant demands even when we don’t feel particularly well served by them. he biggest paradox of “Stand Firm. is only human. Even the phrase “stand rm” may sound pretty fogyish. Brinkmann at least has the Danish welfare state to fall back on. like all advice. All of this gives “Stand Firm” a somewhat conservative cast. but we are not blundering alone. or can’t.1/10/2018 Improving Ourselves to Death | The New Yorker loyalty. There’s good reason to fear being left behind by an accelerating society. And Brinkmann does offer some advice that seems immediately worth taking. like the teen-ager. not run off to the Dominican Republic. obligation. Go to a museum and look at art. ♦ This article appears in the print edition of the January 15. Above all. Put away your self- help guides.

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